LISZT Symphonic Poems Vol. 5: Eine Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, S. 109; Deux Legendes, S. 354 – Gillian Keith, soprano/Ladies’ Voices of the City of Birmingham/ Symphony Chorus/BBC Philharmonic/ Gianandrea Noseda – Chandos CHAN 10524, 61:29 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
My first encounter with Liszt’s 1856 treatment of Dante’s Divine Comedy, his Dante Symphony, came in the form of an old American Decca LP with Alfred Wallenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, unlikely to find a CD format anytime soon. In the 1980s, Kurt Masur led a rousing version of the Dante Symphony from Tanglewood. Gianandrea Noseda’s striking, new inscription derives from sessions in Manchester made 30 September and 4 October 2008 and appears as the fifth in the Liszt Symphonic Poems cycle for Chandos. At once splashy and devotional, the music certifies, if not Liszt’s declaration of true faith, his conviction that Art itself provides a gateway to Salvation.
Noseda carefully enunciates the various motifs of Inferno, from its dark lament of Abandon All Hope to the 5/4 and 7/4 love episodes recalled by Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, made fertile by the English horn and harp duets. A vicious, mockingly tormented fire burns from clarinets and violas, the brass in swirling counterpoint to the raging fury around it. The Abyss yawns in its terrible depth as the Inferno section concludes, a finality beyond mortal comprehension. Purgatorio hints at the B Major that will dominate the Paradiso section, winds and harps rising, Tranquillo assai–Piu lento, towards a fugue subject that utilizes falling figures, Lamentoso. The ambiguities of tonality anticipate the whole-tone scale with which the Hallelujahs and Hosannas of the final chorus ends. The Lamentoso fugue intensifies and becomes heroic in the manner of Beethoven, the bass fiddles carrying the energy to transition to B Major. The female chorus announces our entry into Heaven as a softly solemn Magnificat, a vestige of the Rituale Romanum whose words “magnify the Lord in my soul.” Strings, high flutes, and harp complement the ethereal intonations of the female chorus; and when the brass enters, it is only so the soprano solo can usher in the tutti, chorus, and organ, a clear inspiration to Saint-Saens for his own assaults on the Infinite.
The orchestral versions of Liszt’s two St. Francis Legends only came to light in 1975, though the manuscript is dated 23-29 October 1863. As piano works, the Deux Legendes appeared in 1866. The Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds is scored for flute, woodwinds, strings, and harp, a shimmering, flight of fancy in its various levels of meaning. More atmospheric than emotive, the music conveys a devotional stasis, though it invokes a fervent hymn that swells, at least temporarily. Several passages hint at Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude. The darker strings carry the martial motion forward–Tempo I–Recitativo–Ritenuto–while flute and strings bask in natural piety. St. Francis Walking on the Waves begins with a brass and woodwind plainchant at its outset, Andante maestoso. Francis himself rises from the waves, much as Debussy’s sunken cathedral. Excellent string work in tremolo carries the urgent, spiritual fidelity forward. Do we detect hints from Schubert’s Erlkoenig? Strings and tympani collaborate in clear, nervous evocations from Les Preludes that become confident as the music raises the hymn dynamically, the section marked “Charitas!” St. Francis passes into a glowing apotheosis of light, the scales rising, the brass–and the audiophile’s sound system– triumphant.
— Gary Lemco